04/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fallen Cops: A Moment of Silence, Please

Adorned with black numerals, the small bright-yellow pylons mark locations of spent shells scattered about the street. Uniformed and plainclothes cops go about the methodical business of identifying, preserving, and collecting evidence at the crime scene. They pause, some of them, from time to time to embrace one another.

Shortly after 1:00 p.m. last Saturday, Police Sgt. Mark Dunakin stopped 26-year-old Lovelle Mixon in the 7400 block of Oakland's MacArthur Boulevard. Mixon handed over a driver's license featuring his photo, but it was a phony. As Dunakin, now joined by Officer John Hege, headed back to his motorcycle, Mixon stepped out of his car and opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol.

Their weapons still snugly holstered, the officers lay helpless on the ground, their lives slipping away. Mixon strolled over and pumped additional rounds into their bodies, then fled to his sister's apartment on 74th Avenue. A passerby went to the aid of the fallen officers and called 911.

Forty-five minutes later SWAT sergeant Daniel Sakai led a team of officers, including Sgt. Erv Romans, into the apartment where Mixon was known to be hiding. The officers lobbed a couple of flash-bangs to distract the suspect then moved quickly down a hallway, unaware that Mixon was lying on the floor of a bedroom closet, his SKS military assault rifle locked and loaded.

Without warning, Mixon opened fire, spraying bullets blindly through the wall. Romans was hit first, Sakai fell moments later. Other SWAT officers then shot and killed Mixon.

A lot of people don't like cops. They point to rudeness, apathy, brutality. Too often, they're right. It's also true that there are some trigger-happy cops out there who ought not to be wearing the uniform. But some detractors couldn't be more amiss in expressing foolish and cruel sentiments like "good riddance," or in praising Mr. Mixon for ridding society of four more "enemies of the people."

There's much to criticize about the institution of American policing: a structure that drains the humanity from the work; a culture that breeds an unwholesome form of in-group solidarity and insularity; and systemic resistance to transparency and accountability.

But there's also this about police work: It's arguably the most sensitive, vital job in our society, and most citizens lack the guts to do it. Why? Because it's dangerous job. Death happens.

It doesn't occur as often as most are led to believe, certainly not as frequently as it does on TV. There are a good number of riskier occupations--mining and construction, farming and firefighting come to mind, as does fishing on the Bering Sea in the dead of winter. But there is no job, other than soldiering, where one's life can so quickly be cut short--at the hands of another. Sudden, violent death is an occupational hazard for police officers.

We'd do well to pause from time to time and to give serious thought to what we ask of our cops. We expect them to be courteous and responsive, reasoned and responsible. We expect them to honor our civil liberties.

And we expect them to keep us and our children safe from the Mixons of the world.

It may have taken a generation, but we learned just how wrong we were to treat returning Vietnam vets with scorn, and worse. We came to realize that blaming service personnel for the failures of American foreign policy was wrong, morally and politically. We need to adopt the same attitude toward our police officers. If they behave like an occupying army it's because they operate within a paramilitary system that rewards that very behavior.

When individual officers violate the public's trust we have every right to demand action and accountability. But an event like Saturday's shootings ought to remind us just how desperately we need good cops.

Four police officers are dead, their families, friends, colleagues, an entire city hurting. As we mourn their loss, let's not forget what their sacrifice ultimately accomplished.

Mixon, tortured soul though he may have been, was a dangerous man. He'd been imprisoned for assault with a deadly weapon, carjacking, armed robbery. His DNA has now been tied to the rape of a 12-year-old girl in his neighborhood. He's been implicated in several other sexual assaults, and he is a suspect in yet another murder.

In the end, it was the police who made sure Mr. Mixon will not go on to rape or kill again.